Eastbourne, Sussex

The present-day resort of Eastbourne did not exist until the second half of the 19th century, except as a cluster of hamlets. It has been thought that Methodism was brought to the area in 1803 by soldiers stationed at the newly-built Redoubt Fort, constructed as part of the defences against Napoleon. When the soldiers left, worship continued in houses on the sea front. But it seems likely that this was a society of Presbyterian and Independent Calvinists.

The earliest clear reference to the Wesleyans is the arrival of a local preacher from Lewes, Henry Beck, who set up as a baker and grocer in the town. He was joined in 1808 by a Methodist farmer, William Heathfield and his family from Canterbury. The first Superintendent of the newly formed Lewes Circuit, Robert Pilter, recognised the opening, but was unable to get an extra preacher to exploit it. So Eastbourne was at first served mainly by local preachers, some of them travelling fifteen miles from Lewes. Nevertheless, in 1810 a chapel was built in Old Grove Road, near the centre of the old town. During the next few decades Methodist fortunes fluctuated, dropping to a low of 22 member in 1839 and 17 in 1845. But a new era began with the encouraging leadership of Thomas Scott, a Lewes local preacher. In 1851 the Religious Census recorded congregations of 116 in the morning and 140 in the evening and the membership stood at 33..

The town grew in size and prosperity. In 1864 a bigger church was built to serve the expanding eastern part of the town on land donated by the Duke of Devonshire. 'Central' was one of the churches built with the help of the Watering Places Fund and was opened by the Rev.W. Morley Punshon. For the rest of the 19th Century the town continued to grow, thanks to the railway link with London. It prospered both as a residential town and as a holiday resort. In the last decade of the century there was a revival with new Wesleyan Methodist churches being opened at Beamsley Road in the east end of the town (1894), in Willingdon (also 1894) and in Old Town (Greenfield Road) in 1898. Nearby there was expansion in the market town of Hailsham and new churches at Blacknest in 1891 and Gamelands in 1900. By 1907 Central church in Pevensey Road was proving inadequate; so in 1908 it was replaced by a larger building, opened by the President of the Conference, J. Scott Lidgett.

Having been part of the Lewes and then the Brighton Circuit for many years, in 1871 Eastbourne became a circuit in its own right, remaining so until 2007.

Primitive Methodism did not reach the town until people came over from Hastings and a Primitive Methodist Church (St. Aidan's) was opened in 1913. The PM Circuit was called Hastings and Eastbourne. Following Methodist Union, the WM and PM societies in the town were united in September 1933 in the St. Aidan premises. There is no evidence of any United Methodist presence in the town.

During the Second World War Eastbourne was in the front line and suffered from enemy bombing. Services were held in the vaulted space under the church. After the war the development of the town continued and St. Stephen's was opened in 1960 in the Hampden Park area. St. Barnabas, an ecumeniocal venture (Methodist, URC and Baptist) opened in Langney in 1978. In recent years Blacknest and St. Aidan's have been closed and worship has ceased at Willingdon. In 2007 the Eastbourne Circuit joined with the Mid-Sussex Circuit and neighbouring URC churches to become The Central Sussex United Area (Methodist and URC). In 2015 the first steps were taken to form a united Methodist and URC church in Eastbourne, to be known as 'Emmanuel'. With that in view Central Methodist Church closed in 2018.

'The Links', a Methodist Guest House, opened in 1934.

  • Carlos Crisford, The Golden Candlestick ( 1907)
  • Central Methodist Church. Jubilee 1908-1958
  • 175 Years of Methodism in Eastbourne, 1803-1978
  • D. Dunn Wilson, 'From Seahouses to Central': A short account of 'the People called Methodists in Eastbourne (Eastbourne, 1978)